While Mitch Keller gets most of the attention as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ top pitching prospect, J.T. Brubaker should not be overlooked
While most Pittsburgh Pirates fans were focused on top prospect Mitch Keller’s rise through the minors, most probably aren’t familiar with farmhand J.T. Brubaker. And why would you be? He’s a 26-year-old who still is in Triple-A. But make no mistake, Brubaker has been just as good as any other minor league pitcher the Pirates currently have.
Brubaker was a 6th round pick during the 2015 MLB draft by the Pirates out of the University Of Akron. When Brubaker broke into the professional baseball scene, he tossed 73.1 with Low-A West Virginia, producing a 2.82 ERA, 3.32 FIP, and 0.941 WHIP. While he did struggle in 2016 and 2017, posting an identical 4.44 ERA in both seasons, he made one thing clear: he was not getting bitten by the long ball and he wasn’t going to give up walks. He gave up just 15 home runs, and 91 walks across nearly 260 innings (259 and a third to be exact). That equates to a .83 HR/9, and 3.15 BB/9.
2018 has so far been the right hander’s best season. He split 154 innings between Triple-A Indianapolis (119 innings), and Double-A Altoona (35 innings), and pitched magnificently. He put up a 2.81 ERA, 3.20 FIP, and 1.260 WHIP. In a lot of ways, he had a better season than Mitch Keller. Keller actually had a worse ERA (3.48), FIP (3.35), and WHIP (1.300), gave up more free passes (2.6 BB/9 compared to 3.5 BB/9), and more home runs (.5 HR/9 compared to .6 HR/9). After 2018, he was even named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Going into 2019 Brubaker probably would have seen playing time in the MLB if it weren’t for the injury bug that decimated most of the Pirates’ organization in 2019. Brubaker played all of 6 total games, and while he pitched well in most of them, 2 were rehab starts in West Virginia.
Brubaker has 4 pitches. A two seamer, slider, and newly minted curveball, and change-up. Starting with his fastball, both mlb.com and Fangraphs puts it 60 in rating. Brubaker usually throws this in the mid-90’s, but has been able to reach back for more velocity. According to Baseball America, J.T.’s fastball has reached into the high-90’s while coming out of the bullpen. His slider is is given a 55 on MLB.com, but a 50 on Fangraphs. The pitch has some life, and he gets a lot of weak contact on the pitch. Brubaker started to mix in a curveball with his two pitches, as well as a change-up after joining the Pirates. While the curveball is rated at a 50 per mlb.com and 55 per Fangraphs, his changeup needs more work. MLB.com has the following to say about his change-up:
"“He also has a change-up, though that’s too firm with not enough differential from his fastball.”"
The Pirates’ right hander isn’t going to be one to hunt for the strikeout. He has a career 7.2 K/9, and his highest K/9 as a professional was 10.5, but that was in a 13 inning sample size as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League during the 2017-2018 off-season. However, he does do something really well – prevent home runs. In an era where everyone is swinging for the fences, having a guy like Brubaker, who has a career 0.6 HR/9, will definitely be valuable in the long run for the 26-year old. Just for comparison, the MLB average HR/9 in 2019 was 1.4.
Brubaker definitely has the endurance to make it as a starter in the MLB. However, he isn’t seen as a future ace. More of a high floor, low ceiling kind of guy who’s ceiling is a good #3 starter. But we know Brubaker definitely has the stuff to move to the bullpen.
If he scraps the curveball and change-up, Brubaker can focus more on his fastball/slider combination, and become a formidable force coming out of the bullpen. Going into 2020, however, I see him sticking in the rotation for now. With ace Jameson Taillon out of the season, and multiple pitchers missing time because of injury in 2019, Brubaker, if healthy himself, might just find himself a spot on the Opening Day rotation come the regular season.